Twenty-five years ago, on the 3rd of February 1993, Seattle-based band Earth released their first full-length record, Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version. The ultra-extreme yet weirdly ambient, intensely embodied but marginal and fragmented subgenre of drone metal was born.
Earth 2 followed an earlier EP, Extra Capsular Extraction (1991), both released by Sub Pop, at that time perhaps the world’s best-known underground label, with Earth having been signed reportedly due to the band’s friendship with Kurt Cobain. Already shifting in line-up between the EP and LP, with Joe Preston making way for Dave Harwell, this set the tone for the project to consist of guitarist Dylan Carlson and assorted other players, some who stayed around for many years (notably long-term drummer Adrienne Davis), others for barely more than a recording session or tour. The album was a deeper dive into the style already road-tested on the earlier EP which had also featured three tracks of slow-grinding sludge, most notably on the broken-down grind of ‘Ouroboros is Broken’, apparently the first Earth track written, and one which still appears in recent setlists. Earth 2, however, pushed the template to further vast and minimal excess.
The album consisted of three sprawling, scuzzy, painfully slow slabs of guitar distortion over seventy-three minutes, with barely anything other than layers and layers of high-gain low-tempo drone riffs audible, let alone any easily navigable musical structures or signposted rock moments. It was a spectacularly ambitious but introvertedly marginal record, austere yet wildly excessive, ambient and extreme. Or it was a weird guitar homage to 1960s American minimalist composers. Or a grimfaced take on metal conventions, resisting the arms-race acceleration but retaining the riff worship. Or a strung-out mindblown heroin-wasted mong of an album. Or a high doom feedback mantra. And all of them all at once.
It begins with ‘Seven Angels’, opening out from a flattened, flatulent, downtuned, downturned, ultragloom squuaaaaaaaaa of grud until a slimed fist of a riff gathers together the seaweed and thumps a murky, bedraggled trail, a repeating-note chug which sporadically bends out of its rut, only to smash back down again, slow and unstoppable like the tide. It’s not so much sluggishness in the playing, since (particularly near the end) there’s a repeated dug-dug-dug-dug-dunna-nurr that motors along at a respectable doomy rate. But it’s the speed of development and change rather than of beats or musical gestures that is achingly, groaningly dirge-like, and the sense of oppressive sludge is compounded by the wretched scrowl of the relentless distortion. Listening late in the dark a few weeks ago, it seemed like a clear, visionary, mantric musical idea that had been deliberately obscured, protected, veiled in great rainy swathes and drapes of thick fog crackle and hiss.
That first track is practically a Pixies pop song in comparison to the next two though, both of which weigh in at around half an hour (track two a couple minutes under, track three half a minute over). Where ‘Seven Angels’ twisted a tough-as-nails chord progression into a gnarled snake of submarine power cable, ‘Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine’ rolls a giant boulder riff into view that is far more deconstructed, almost presenting plates or plateaus of notes in tenuous drifting sequence, barely in connection with one another. For a long swathe in the middle, even these panels of metal seem to corrode into acid distortion, melting apparent surfaces away and displaying the infinite which was hid, clearing a channel for a weird sound light, perceptible only through being obscured in noisy filth.
‘Like Gold and Faceted’ then drives unimaginably further into the impure purity of the drone, a final stage of devotion or devolution into monotony which eclipses all else. Sometimes drone can seem small in its minimal gestures, conceptual rather than sensual. But here the power of the metal distortion and the ideology of the riff showed what could be summoned through the pairing of drone and metal. The worship of distorted timbres, the sound of power exceeding the channel through which it flows and thereby damaging or marking its own signal, becomes the central ruined monolith around which this music arranges its thought-obliterating rituals. This wild, galactically peaceful chaos of noise somehow combines a furious sense of undirected violence and a womblike calm, melting the absurdity of all these mere words into the apprehension of amplification amplified, distortion distorted, sound creating not music but consciousness of what sound itself sounds like. About two thirds of the way into the track, a crash cymbal briefly smashes smeared across the star-scattered sky… for ten more minutes all is quieted in an awed, raging silence of sprawling noise.
The claim that this record birthed a whole style, drone metal or drone doom, doesn’t mean that it was immediately recognised as such—origin stories tend to be retrospectively constructed once styles or ideas have more solidly crystalized, and influence can be more clearly discerned. In this case, it wasn’t until years later that a few connections between isolated recordings, across the globe and at the margins of other extreme scenes, coalesced into something that began to attract tentative genre names. Two albums recorded in 1996 were similarly committed to the excessively distorted droning dirge: Absolutego by Boris, and Sleep’s legendary Dopesmoker. Both records consisted of single hour-long tracks, which pushed the boundaries of endurance in feedback fuzz and singleminded sludge riffs—in fact, the original plan for Earth 2 had been one long track, with this idea shelved since it would be split up by changing tape reels anyway. Californians Sleep ascended beyond their classic Holy Mountain, following the smoke further into an impossibly heavy pilgrimage into the depths of Sabbath ritual. Boris, from Tokyo, submitted their even longer debut masterpiece, a slow lumbering hoarse beast lurking out of a ten-minute thundercloud of scuzz, roaring around in slow motion for nearly an hour before dissolving back into an endless morass of noise. Boris in particular paid homage to Earth by subtitling some versions Absolutego: Special Low Frequency Version, and Dylan Carlson returned the compliment by describing the album (approvingly) as ‘the sound of slugs fucking’.
There were further tectonic movements that shifted towards the development of drone metal as an identifiable musical form. Evolving from the ashes of Sleep were the band Om, a stripped back bass and drum duo producing austere rhythmic cycles overlaid with mantras of esoteric religious significance. SunnO))) named themselves after their own amplifiers while placed those drone-standing-stones at the centre of the stage, or the world, combining devotion to distortion with a deeply ritualistic live presence. Perhaps among the most extreme and experimental of the drone metal explorers, SunnO))) too paid tribute to Earth, recording tracks like ‘Dylan Carlson’ (on 1999’s Grimmrobe Demos), hinting at a planetary-scale resonance in the names of their projects (Earth/Sun), and, not least, ensuring that Earth’s previous and future catalogue had a secure home on their Southern Lord label. These pioneers obliterated the conventions that heavy music had to be fast and flashy, instead whirling an unbelievably intense gravity into leaden rhythms, endless repetition, slowness in pace or in geological-scale development, and in the weird vibrating stasis of pure drone volume.
The titles and other throwaway but oddly significant aspects of Earth 2’s sleeve, in retrospect, set something of a loose template for Earth’s later explorations of tone and drone, as well as, in certain ways, for drone metal as a recognisable genre. Angels and teeth would recur like odd talismans over the interrupted decades of Earth’s career. Thrones and Dominions, the subtitle of the 1995 follow-up album Phase 3, referred to hierarchies of angels; their side of a 2006 split with SunnO))) was ‘A Plague of Angels’; and their opposites turned up also in the Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I & II records (2011 and 2012) and in Pentastar: In the Style of Demons (1996). Dental work (German and otherwise) appeared sporadically too, in ‘An Inquest Concerning Teeth’, Extra-Capsular Extraction, and ‘His Teeth Did Brightly Shine’ for example, the latter a line taken from the folk tune ‘Reynardine’. The retreat of words and lyrics and singing from the music itself (Pentastar and the recent Primitive & Deadly being the only full albums to feature vocals) has the effect of shining a strangely focused light on whatever titles and artwork happened to be attached to the sounds.
Speaking of significant angels, the fact that Carlson wore a Morbid Angel shirt on the small photo on the back cover was important in signalling to metal fans that here might be something they were interested in (despite the label’s association with grunge) as he reminisced much later, going on to pay tribute to metal audiences who, if they got into the band, got into the band for good and supported them for years and years. The cover photo of Mongolian plains and sky was, like the sounds, somehow wild, minimal and expansive all at once, with that sans serif subtitle Special Low Frequency Version promising thick meditation on the material of the sonic signifiers.
But most eerily prescient was the list of odd quotes on the reverse of the sleeve, as if from listeners but with an unusually formal medicalised nature which faintly suggested a tongue-in-cheek satirical aspect. This would be in keeping with the earlier EP, which took titles and art direction from a found dental textbook (those teeth again). But on the back cover of Earth 2 they had a more subtle and uncanny aura.
…found it difficult to think of the things that disturb me…Afterwards, everything seemed right with the world.
A new, yet seemingly ancient kind of experience…very unusual!!
…A PHYSICAL PRESENCE IN THE ROOM…I CAN ALMOST TOUCH THE SOUNDS.
When I got up, I could swear I was a few inches off the ground!
Forget drugs and alcohol…I am now very, very mellow!
I feel alert yet very calm…Wonderful after a hard day.
MY TENSION HEADACHES HAVE DISAPPEARED!
Always had trouble relaxing…after auditioning Earth 2, had an incredibly deep sleep
Whether collected from actual early listeners, or snipped and decontextualized from some random found source, or just made up on the spot, these lines foreshadow crucially important themes in the reception and interpretation of drone metal as it developed over the next decades. I spent several years researching how listeners understood and communicated about the effects of drone metal on their bodies and minds, with particular reference to ideas about mysticism, ritual and religion against a backdrop of metal’s fascination with those topics. Interviewing more than seventy listeners, collecting survey responses from more than three hundred, reading thousands of album and live reviews and comments on YouTube and metal forums, and going to as many live drone shows as I possible could, I found strong recurrences of these themes when listeners experienced and talked about Earth and the droning musicians they influenced.
In these ambiguous quotes are hidden the seeds of a strange, even esoteric and hidden culture. A rhetoric of altered states and extraordinary bodily consciousness that might include other strange conditions (drugs, meditation, sickness) but was more concerned with finding a language in which to approach impossible description of drone metal sound. A physical engagement with sounds felt as a force to be experienced and not understood. The use of such music as weird therapy. An offer, of difficult but valuable access to a radical wild excess in which ritual and mysticism are grounded in the ephemeral but undeniable vibrations of heavy, heavy, heavy sound.
Owen’s book, Mysticism, Ritual and Religion in Drone Metal, is out now, published by Bloomsbury Academic. Buy it here or request your library purchase it!